There is a self-portrait by Rembrandt which hangs now in Kenwood House in London which I find both beautiful and fascinating. It shows in the mood of the man depicted, and in the technique, Rembrandt in his maturity, vigorous and with authority. Behind him are parts of two large circles inscribed on the walls, bare hemispheres, empty maps, exactly shaped, though each is incomplete, cut off by the frame: a perfect outline comprised of many careful brush strokes. Rembrandt paints his face and head with a powerful stillness and composure, with a striking imprecise but exquisite daub of white at the tip of his nose. In contrast the hands and the brushes he holds are in whirling undefined activity, asserting his freedom, and, paradoxically, his control. Head and hand, clear lines and unformed scribbles. Thought and action – I think this painting is a complex revelation of where a longing for perfection might lead us. A painter described to me the effect this painting has on him by saying that “it gives me ideas without overwhelming me”. That seems to me to get right to the heart of a different kind of perfection, beyond faultlessness. And I think it suggests the nature of the human being’s perfection – that it resides in creativity, in finding the wholeness which goes forward, which is unfinished.
Rudolf Steiner, speaking to teachers about avoiding fatigue in education (Soul Economy lecture XI), asks them to distinguish making too great demands on the head-nature of the child from overtaxing the limb and metabolic system. He asks the teacher always to look to the breathing and blood circulation, to all that is rhythmic in the child’s being, because this system in the human being, is by nature indefatigable and constitutes the inner independent world of the child. Rudolf Steiner describes the head, especially in childhood, as the source of what forms the child, what flows into the whole physical organisation. On their own, these forces, in their inner mental and intellectual manifestations, are forces which separate the individual human being, leading to an “artificial state of perfection”. Through our limbs, our metabolism, we are in touch with the external world, we generate warmth, we can soften and disturb what would become isolated and perfect through the influence of our heads. Rudolf Steiner characterises the development of the child as involving gradual penetration of the body, and through the body establishing a relationship to the world. He is at pains to insist that the true intellectual development of the adolescent depends on the full incarnation into the limb system; “the human being pours himself into the skeleton”. I think this description illuminates the Rembrandt self-portrait and is signalling the dangers of that one-sided, head-orientated idea of perfection which could have belonged to the empty circles behind Rembrandt. But they are incomplete; they engage our imagination to leave them be or complete them.
The softening of the perfection which belongs to the head is inherent in all care relationships which mature from dependence to true mutuality. It is vital that we do not imagine that we, or others, have all the answers. I appreciate D W Winnicott’s insight into the way that growth is helped by the lack of certainty about what the other person needs. It’s important not to know, to get things wrong – as a doctor, as a mother, as a friend. You wait for the other person to give a signal. You have to wait – and this is also relevant in our inner dialogue. Waiting – a core activity in the Alexander Technique – is about moving to a different ideal of perfection. If, as Winnicott puts it, we “know too well” we stifle growth.
A couple of examples will help give some colour to this concept of wise imperfection. There was a famous concert by the pianist Keith Jarrett given in Köln in the mid seventies. He was ill, it was an unlikely venue with an inadequate piano; out of it came a mesmeric performance in which he felt “nothing could go wrong, nothing can stop me now”. Out of the inadequacy of the situation came a total trust and faith in his playing and his imagination. That example may, for you, only suggest the omnipotence of intoxication. I move on to a more intensely suggestive event, recorded by the Dutch doctor L F C Mees about the treatment he received, when ill in his twenties, from Ita Wegman, a doctor who was a close collaborator of Rudolf Steiner. He describes Ita Wegman approaching his bed, greeting him, and beginning with a basic examination and questions. “I still remember very well that, after a few minutes, I developed a strong sense that this person knew nothing, that she was a great question; and at the same time I was filled with the awareness that someone like that was a proper doctor. A doctor should actually know nothing, but be solely a question. He asks patients about their complaints and at the same time asks the world of healing what is needed.” I love the way this description opens up a new path towards perfection.
In the Jewish mystical tradition there is an image of the creation of the Universe as the shattering of the vessels which were channelling the light of God into the space that had been emptied to allow creation. As some of the vessels shattered, sparks and shards fell to become manifest, trapped in material existence. Thus comes our broken, asymmetric universe: our task is to raise the light, to liberate the sparks and restore them to divinity. Our world in inherently flawed. If it were not so, it would not exist, but this image also allows the perfect, the divine, to be recognised here, and everywhere. I think in this picture we can bring together the imperfection of Keith Jarrett’s piano and the unknowing presence of the doctor at the young man’s bedside.
Often, in work with the Alexander Technique, we have a longing for perfection, for being without flaws, without faults. I believe it is, at heart, a method which leads us beyond such a head-bound, intellectual concept of perfection into one that is more about the perfection of intuited completeness, of the becoming that is not yet realised but which guides the present changes. It’s the very antithesis of an achieved state of virtue – it’s the expression of the individualised path of self-development which is the human being’s path. We are the least specialised, the simplest of animals in a way, with so much scope in the way we mould the flow between head and limbs, playing our poor piano, pausing so that we can release the spark from where it lies hidden beneath our habits and our hurry.